ARTICLE: Reviewing the Review

With Resident Evil 6 getting a less than flattering 4.5 out of 10 score on Gamespot, a drama bomb exploded on the internet. A great number of well-informed individuals disputed reviewer Kevin VanOrd’s harsh judgement of Capcom’s latest action/horror title, pinpointing the many flaws in his reasoning and intelligently dissecting his review as a whole. Or did they? In an parallel universe, maybe. In reality, legions of fanboys campaigned against the review score, accusing VanOrd having had wrong expectations and even calling for him to be fired over allegedly breaking the embargo (i.e. posting a few nasty comments about the game on Twitter without actually naming it). It once again exposed the weakness of modern reviews, which seem to be more about the grade than the actual text. What can be done to make reviews interesting again? Are professional opinions losing their relevance? Is it perhaps time to reconsider the target audience of a review? Draugen investigates.

It is an often-heard complaint that video game journalism as a whole lacks the maturity of other branches of journalism. This assessment is hard to counter when one takes a look at how gamers themselves perceive video game reviews. To many, it is all about how high a score a certain game gets. What is written in the review itself is rarely brought up. Part of this may be attributed to the immaturity of gamers themselves, but another conclusion one could draw is that reviews just do not contain a whole lot of interesting information.

The reason that video game reviews seem to be getting less interesting is that most of them are staying loyal to the buyer’s guide ideal: the belief that the primary (or even sole) function of a review is to inform potential buyers whether or not Game X is worth their money. This perception may seem logical, but over the past few years, gamers have obtained more and more possibilities to inform themselves, often better than a reviewer could ever do in a few paragraphs of text. Demos are making a comeback thanks to services such as Steam, the Free-to-Play concept is becoming increasingly more popular, and websites such as YouTube make it possible for gamers to witness with their own eyes how a game plays. The role of the reviewer as an informer in this sense, seems to be over. I tried recalling the last time when a review made me go out and buy a game, and I could not come up with anything. And as someone who likes reading reviews, this certainly says something. As such, I cannot help but conclude that this must be the same for a lot of people out there, effectively reducing the relevance of reviews to a Metacritic average that may give us a slight indication of a game’s quality.

So should I buy TF2?

This should not mean, however, that video game reviews have been rendered obsolete altogether. On the contrary, perhaps we can now move on to a more mature ‘discourse’ if you will, and use reviews to get closer to the essence of a video game. Pretentious as it may sound, it is a necessary step to take if we ever want serious video games to be taken seriously, instead of gaming as a whole being perceived as just another pastime for antisocial teeny boppers. After all, most of us who have been playing video games for a long time are aware of how fascinating they can be. How they can keep us busy and even become valuable emotionally. Therefore, this is perhaps the right time to re-vindicate the video game review and use it to start exploring their emotional impact rather than just sticking to the worn-out graphics/sound/story/gameplay check-list formula that stems from a day when reviews were still virtually the only way for gamers to inform themselves.

What the creators of Law & Order SVU picture you as

Because it is a good habit to put your money where your mouth is, I have taken up experimenting with new ways of reviewing games. My recent Skyrim review already was a minor departure from the standard formula, in the sense that there was a bigger focus on Skyrim’s place in video game history than the technical aspects. This represents an important change, because if a review is to be something more than a score with an irrelevant patch of text next to it, it has to strive towards being a more perpetual manifestation of ideas. More concretely, information on aspects such as graphics and even sound quality becomes dated fairly quickly, and as a result, reviews that focus heavily on these elements lose their relevance just as rapidly. Granted, this is not a great problem when you strive towards a ‘buyer’s guide’-type review that is meant to inform gamers on day one. But, as said, reviews that fall into this category are at risk of losing their relevance either way, so it is advisable to avoid said approach altogether.

Outrageous as it may sound to some, a review that wants to maintain relevance should not only try to appeal to gamers looking for quick consumer advice, but it should also be interesting to people who have already played the game. A good review can provide new perspectives on something you thought you already knew through and through. It can make you see the brilliance in a game you thought was nothing special, or point out the flaws in something you deemed perfect. For a review to be able to accomplish this, less attention has to be spent on pure technical descriptions of graphics, sound and even story. That is not to say these aspects have to be ignored altogether (although that is certainly a possibility), but their influence on the game as a whole has to be analysed, rather than merely being brought up in an exclusively descriptive account of information that a considerable portion of the readers will already know by heart.

“lol y review dis old game?”

Going for an analytical rather than descriptive approach would also eliminate the problem of reviews being ‘old’. In theory, a review of a 10 year-old game can be every bit as interesting as the review of a title that came out last week, as long as it provides a new, fresh outlook on something that we are already familiar with. A shift towards a ‘perpetual’ review style would also limit the influence of video game publishers, who, through review copies and embargoes, have the power to decide whether or not a particular gaming website will have any interesting material to write about. Because with the review style that is currently prevalent, video game websites invest nearly all their energy in covering what is popular at that specific moment, meaning that getting a game two weeks in advance or not can mean the difference between a traffic spike and total obscurity. If reviews of older games were to become more accepted, this immense power on the publishers’ behalf would be reduced considerably, resulting in more freedom for big gaming websites, and more opportunities for humble blogs such as the one you are reading now.

I want your honest opinion on our game. Also, I hope you had fun on my island resort.

It is often said that information is better understood and remembered when a practical example is given. So in order to familiarise you, dearest System Warrior, with this alternative way of reviewing, I will soon post the revised version of a review of Cryostasis I wrote a while back, in which I attempt to present opinions and observations with more permanence than you would see in a ‘buyer’s guide’. It is not my desire to claim that I am ‘reinventing’ the video game review as such, nor to imply that writing them in the traditional way is bad necessarily. But I do deem it a good idea to reflect on the function of reviews and perhaps reconsider the way in which we write them when we conclude that they are starting to lose relevance.